The National Security Agency (NSA) director is not endorsing the formation of a possible cyber security unit with the Russian government, and is continuing to focus on navigating partnerships with the technology industry to support discussion on new capabilities, the director said over the weekend.

Adm. Mike Rogers spoke on a panel at the Aspen Security Forum on Saturday, alongside former director of the United Kingdom’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) Robert Hannigan, about the two agencies’ ongoing efforts to focus in on cyber mission sets against adversaries while proliferating industry dialogue.

Admiral Michael Rogers, Director of the National Security Agency and Commander of U.S. Cyber Command. Photo: National Security Agency.
Admiral Michael Rogers, Director of the National Security Agency and Commander of U.S. Cyber Command. Photo: National Security Agency.

“I would argue now is probably not the best time to be doing this,” said Rogers, when asked about President Donald Trump’s earlier tweets regarding the idea of a cyber partnership with Russia. “Oh, am I increasing greater level of investment in terms of gaining insights and information assurance and computer network defense, knowledge of what foreign actors are doing? Oh yeah.”

Both Hannigan and Rogers believe there has been a notable shift in the dialogue between potential industry partners over the last four years, both in the willingness to present technology opportunities to the NSA and in cooperating when it comes to dealing with encryption.

“For me personally, with the exception of Iraq, Afghanistan and some of the Five-Eye partners, the number one place I spend more time outside of Washington, D.C. anywhere in the world is Silicon Valley,” said Rogers. “I go out there because I’m interested personally in talking to leadership within the tech sector. Given the many challenges we have, encryption is just one those challenges we both have in terms of our desire to generate more knowledge and insight from a foreign intelligence perspective, but also our desire to increase the level of cyber security for our nation, and the security of the devices of the information that we all use.”

Rogers, who also serves as commander of U.S. Cyber Command (USCYBERCOM), wants to work with industry to specifically measure what technical standards need to be met for new technologies, what changes need to be made to physical aspects of hardware to be more cyber resilient and assessing the cyber security for the information passed between devices.

The NSA and its partners in the British GCHQ are starting to generate more open discussion with the tech industry on how to approach the subject of encryption. Rogers and Hannigan agreed that as part of the two nation’s signals intelligence goals, an open dialogue to what government expects when information is needed from encrypted devices is a vital conversation that must continue.

“We don’t ask for back doors. We’re not asking for the weakening of encryption. Nobody’s going to un-invent end-to-end encryption in particular.” said Hannigan. “They are being much more helpful, and there’s a much more sensible conversation. Both our agencies spent 70 years developing the best encryption in the world to protect everything from the foreign chain down to domestic users. So we’re not against encryption, but it’s the abuse of encryption by a minority that we need to sit down with the industry and discuss.”

During the panel, Rogers also touched on the much-discussed topic of splitting up the NSA, and standing up CYBERCOM as its own agency with its own leader. The Trump administration recently made clear to follow through this plan, but there are no current details about when and how that would take place.

“The way we do it right now between NSA and Cyber Command, we have one individual who’s accountable, his name happens to be Mike Rogers right now,” said Rogers, who argued in favor of the split but cautioned against making the change hastily. “We’re digging into how do we do it, what’s a good time period, how long is it going to take. I was very concerned about, ‘guys, let’s not do something just for the sake of doing something, and just picking an arbitrary date.’ In the end, it’s about ensuring both organizations’ ability to generate mission outcomes because that’s what our nation and our allies are counting on.”

An announcement is expected in the coming weeks on how and when the split would occur.

“For the National Security Agency, we are committed to continue to execute the mission. And the mission keeps getting tougher,” said Rogers. “I have been a professional signals intelligence officer in the United States Navy for 31 years, and in those 31 years that rate of change I observed in many of our targets of the last few years I have never seen targets sets constantly change their communications profiles, constantly upgrade their technology. Whether it be a nation-state, whether it be a group like ISIS or Al-Qaeda, the rate of change in our profession and the challenges for us to stay ahead of that keep growing both in complexity and speed.”